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In recent years, there has been a lively debate in California about whether to allow school districts to replace the 11th grade Smarter Balanced assessments that students take each spring with the SAT or ACT.

Some school district leaders have argued that doing so would reduce test fatigue for 11th graders, many of whom are also taking AP and college admissions tests. Giving students more opportunities to take the test, they argue, will also better prepare students to gain admission to colleges of their choice. Others have opposed the move on a number of grounds, including that college admissions tests are not as well aligned to the state’s academic standards.

Assembly Bill 751,which is making its way through the Legislature, would allow school districts to administer a college admissions test instead of the Smarter Balanced math and English language arts tests to their high-school juniors. It would require the state to cover the cost of administering the test up to the amount it would cover for Smarter Balanced administration and to report out the test results in the same way it reports the Smarter Balanced results.

A recent commentary opposing that legislation brought us three rebuttals seeking to make the case for colleges tests, each offering a different perspective:

Yoon Choi of CollegeSpring, a nonprofit that works to provide SAT and ACT test preparation to low-income students, says the quantitative nature of the SAT and ACT offers a unique opportunity to increase equity in college admissions, if we can level the playing field by providing access to test preparation for every high school student.

Cynthia Schmeiser of The College Board, which owns and administers the SAT, explains that the new SAT is very different from the old aptitude approach used to develop the SAT 100 years ago.

And Wayne Camara of the ACT argues that using the ACT or SAT for accountability has enabled other states to reduce testing time and facilitates comparisons with students nationally. He also seeks to dispel other misapprehensions about the college tests.

You can read their commentaries below.

Yoon Choi

CEO, CollegeSpring

Every student should be prepared to take and perform well on the ACT and SAT

As the CEO of a nonprofit that provides SAT and ACT preparation to students from low-income backgrounds, I am often asked one or both of the following questions: Are college entrance exams fair, or do they only work for the rich, the white and the privileged? Should these tests even exist?

It is absolutely true that SAT and ACT score results reveal shocking stratification by income and race. Unfortunately, however, such disparities are not unique to the SAT and ACT. Rather, the tests’ quantitative nature makes them one of the easiest places to spot the deep inequities that are present in every single aspect of our educational system and that affect all students’ college-going trajectories.

Income and race-related inequities are also reflected in many other educational outcomes, including GPA, access to AP classes and the likelihood of being given grade appropriate assignments.

The “holistic” components of college admissions also favor students with the time and resources to participate in extracurricular activities, gain leadership experience, complete internships and employ a college essay consultant to help them package these experiences in a way that is appealing to college admissions officers.

Yet most conversations about equity in the college admissions process steer clear of how to solve for grade inflation or access to extracurricular activities. No one insists that colleges refrain from considering students’ music lessons, volunteer experience, or AP courses. What educational barriers stay in place when we divert all our criticism to the test and why are we OK with that?

Adopting test-optional admissions policies sounds like a good way to eradicate bias in college admissions, but we should be wary of “quick fix” approaches and the illusion of solving a problem that has much broader roots in the entire American education system.

What if we asked a different question? Instead of getting rid of the test, what if every student were prepared to take and perform well on the test?

The quantitative nature of the SAT and ACT offers a unique opportunity to increase equity in college admissions, if we can level the playing field by providing access to test preparation for every high school student. The SAT and ACT aren’t perfect measures of academic potential, but they offer a more consistent measure than GPA, extracurricular activities or access to AP classes, which vary widely across schools and districts.

In the absence of AP coursework at a “competitive” high school, a high test score can help students signal their potential to college admissions officers who don’t recruit at their school. Abolishing the test takes away one more factor that can help students from underrepresented backgrounds stand out in their college admissions journey.

In my work, I’ve often encountered students who struggled to maintain a high GPA over their four years of high school because of difficult social or economic circumstances. Securing a good score on the SAT or ACT can be life-changing for these students when schools like those in the CSU system use a combination of GPA and college entrance exams to determine eligibility.

Finally, preparing for high-stakes standardized tests like the SAT or ACT teaches students valuable skills they can use to persist in college once they are admitted, such as studying for a Biology 101 exam or tackling the MCAT. Preparing for a big test can also help students build soft skills like goal setting and growth mindset.

While I support healthy debate about how colleges use SAT and ACT scores in their admissions process, we need to dig deeper if we want to make college admissions more fair. Getting rid of a test that uncomfortably reflects our country’s educational inequities is not the answer. But preparing all students to perform well on that test is a step in the right direction.

•••

Yoon S. Choi is the CEO of CollegeSpring, a nonprofit organization that works to provide SAT and ACT test preparation to low-income students. 

Cynthia Schmeiser

Senior Advisor to the CEO, The College Board

The new SAT measures achievement — and gives all students a fair chance at college

A totally new SAT was introduced in 2016. It is now an achievement test measuring what students are learning that is essential for college and career readiness. Those skills and concepts have been identified through empirical research. (Specifications for the new test can be found here.)

These skills and knowledge are taught in challenging classrooms across the country, which is why there is a very close alignment of the SAT to the California state standards and the standards of other states committed to getting their students ready for college and careers.

All vestiges of the aptitude approach used to develop the SAT 100 years ago have been eliminated. Gone are the infamous “SAT words,” penalties for guessing and math that isn’t necessary for college work. The new SAT measures students’ understanding of the meaning of everyday words in context, focuses only the math that matters most for students pursuing a variety of careers and presents real-world problems that ask students to use evidence to support their solutions. These are the skills we all use every day in college and in our careers.

In redesigning the SAT, we were also committed to eliminating the inequities associated with high-priced test preparation by partnering with Khan Academy to develop the best practice resources to help students strengthen their skills for college, all for free. Over 8 million students have accessed Official SAT Practice and received personalized study plans to help them use their practice time productively. Research shows that students who practiced 20 hours on Official SAT Practice achieved an average 115-point score gain on the SAT — nearly double the average gain among students who did not use Khan Academy

Some of the misconceptions about the new SAT are really about the old SAT. For instance, some claim the SAT is designed to ensure that the distribution of test scores is virtually identical from year to year. That is not true. The new SAT is a content-based test and when each test form is developed, the focus is on fulfilling the specifications for the content and skills essential for college readiness, rather than on meeting a statistical distribution. Because there is no artificially imposed curve used to score the test, it would be possible for most or even all students to earn high scores and to meet and exceed the College Board’s College Readiness Benchmarks. That’s why it is incorrect to call the new SAT a norm-referenced test. The process used to develop the new SAT is completely different from the old way, and the proof of that is in the detailed content-based reporting students and teachers receive that can be used to guide instructional next steps.

The College Board recently released the results of a national validity study on the new SAT. Studies in California show the SAT and high school GPA are independent and equally strong predictors of first‐year performance at the University of California (UC), and when combined, there is a 16 percent boost in predictive power over GPA alone. The UC study also shows that the SAT has additional predictive value over GPA that, if ignored, would make invisible students who would likely be successful at UC. Claims that the SAT is a weaker predictor of college performance than GPA are wrong.

The SAT measures student achievement, just as a thermometer measures temperature. When we see differences in test scores among subgroups, those differences are not caused by the test. What we are seeing is how well students were instructed and how well they learned essential content and skills. The unfortunate reality is that achievement tests like the SAT have been exposing inequities in the quality of instruction in our schools for decades.

Addressing this injustice is one of the greatest challenges we face as a nation and one of the most important.

•••

Cynthia Schmeiser is senior advisor at The College Board, the company that owns and administers the SAT exam.

Wayne Camara

ACT Horace Mann Research Chair

College admissions tests provide meaningful comparisons and independent evaluation

No single test serves all purposes and goals of accountability equally well.

While some policymakers prefer customized state tests, like Smarter Balanced, that are longer and more likely to include state standards, it is hard to dispute that the ACT, which is taken by high school juniors and seniors and used by many colleges as part of their admissions process, offers several advantages beneficial to students.

In 2018, 26 states administered a college admissions test to all public-school juniors, with about half of those states proposing to use those scores as the academic achievement indicator under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

Those states using standardized tests like the ACT for accountability have found they can decrease testing time by about 50 percent or more and eliminate the need for double-testing. Also, they are able to compare the performance of students in their high school with students nationally, which isn’t possible with customized state tests.

Students are arguably more motivated to do their best when taking college admissions tests because the results have personal benefits. Research has also shown increases in college applications and enrollment in states using admission tests, particularly among underrepresented groups.

ESSA asserts that state standards should be aligned to credit-bearing coursework in higher education and scores should support claims that determine student readiness for success in college. ACT test content is based on results from thousands of educators across high schools and colleges that indicate the skills required to succeed in college. ACT College readiness benchmarks are based on the test scores of students who enroll in college and reflect the performance required to obtain a grade of B or higher in actual college courses. Hundreds of studies have demonstrated that admission test scores are related to college success for all groups. If you’re interested in predicting academic success in college, the ACT is one of the most-researched assessments demonstrating strong validity, score precision and fairness.

Nearly 20 years ago the National Academy of Sciences concluded that admissions tests offered many benefits. Score gaps, for example, reflect actual differences in student achievement in college. “Because … ACT scores generally predict slightly higher college grades for minority students than they actually receive, ‘it is not clear that the answer to minority group representation in higher education lies in improved prediction.’”

Several other myths about college tests bear clarification:

  • Myth: Admissions tests are “graded on a curve.”
    Fact: This is not the case. Each student’s score on the ACT is based solely on his or her own performance on the test, regardless of other students’ scores. ACT does not impose a scoring curve.
  • Myth: A student’s score on the ACT is not likely to change over time.
    Fact: Not so. The ACT test measures the knowledge and skills students have learned in their classes, just as customized state tests are designed to do. As students take more challenging courses and learn more, their scores would improve. On average, students who retest from junior to senior year increase their score by about 1 point on the ACT Composite.
  • Myth: High school grades are the best predictor of college success.
    Fact: Research findings suggest otherwise. Both high school GPA and college admission test scores are highly accurate predictors of success in college. However, the single best predictor of college performance is the combination of grades and test scores together.

It’s true that some may over-rely on test scores and not give adequate attention to other factors which are equally predictive and important in determining college success. No single test is a panacea for truth and virtue and each assessment has strengths and limitations.

However, using a national assessment that has been subject to enormous scrutiny and independent evaluation offers a state both benefits and reassurances.

ACT scores allow parents and policymakers to compare students, schools and states nationally and remove the curtain many state assessments hide behind, which prevents meaningful comparisons and independent evaluation and critique.

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Wayne Camara is the Horace Mann Research Chair at ACT, which owns and administers the ACT test. 

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